It has been long assumed that DNA damage is induced in a linear manner with respect to the dose of a direct acting genotoxin. Thus, it is implied that direct acting genotoxic agents induce DNA damage at even the lowest of concentrations and that no "safe" dose range exists. The linear (non-threshold) paradigm has led to the one-hit model being developed. This "one hit" scenario can be interpreted such that a single DNA damaging event in a cell has the capability to induce a single point mutation in that cell which could (if positioned in a key growth controlling gene) lead to increased proliferation, leading ultimately to the formation of a tumour. There are many groups (including our own) who, for a decade or more, have argued, that low dose exposures to direct acting genotoxins may be tolerated by cells through homeostatic mechanisms such as DNA repair. This argument stems from the existence of evolutionary adaptive mechanisms that allow organisms to adapt to low levels of exogenous sources of genotoxins. We have been particularly interested in the genotoxic effects of known mutagens at low dose exposures in human cells and have identified for the first time, in vitro genotoxic thresholds for several mutagenic alkylating agents (Doak et al., 2007). Our working hypothesis is that DNA repair is primarily responsible for these thresholded effects at low doses by removing low levels of DNA damage but becoming saturated at higher doses. We are currently assessing the roles of base excision repair (BER) and methylguanine-DNA methyltransferase (MGMT) for roles in the identified thresholds (Doak et al., 2008). This research area is currently important as it assesses whether "safe" exposure levels to mutagenic chemicals can exist and allows risk assessment using appropriate safety factors to define such exposure levels. Given human variation, the mechanistic basis for genotoxic thresholds (e.g. DNA repair) has to be well defined in order that susceptible individuals are considered. In terms of industrial exposures to known mutagens, knowing the dose relationships and protective mechanisms involved, offers the possibility of screening workers for susceptibility to mutation through examining DNA repair gene polymorphisms. Hence, thresholds may exist for certain mutagens, but there will undoubtedly be human subpopulations who are more at risk from low dose exposures than others and who should not be exposed, if possible. By studying polymorphisms in DNA repair genes, susceptible individuals may be identified, and additional safety factors appropriately targeted to these populations.
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